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Teachers and bosses 'an ocean apart'

Feb 10 2012

Education Minister George Abbott foreshadowed a legislated end to the B.C. teachers' strike Thursday, saying he's "increasingly pessimistic" that the two sides can reach a negotiated settlement.

"There is nothing in the empirical world that I know that would suggest to me that somehow this is going to be settled happily," he said. "I'm very disappointed in that."

Abbott said the two sides are "an ocean apart." The government insists that the cost of the teachers' contract remain static, while teachers want a 15 per cent increase over three years and improved benefits.

Abbott said that Trevor Hughes, an assistant deputy minister of labour relations, will assess the likelihood of a negotiated settlement and report back in the next two weeks. But, if the outlook looks as bleak as it does today, Abbott said government will move quickly to force an end to the dispute.

"I hope we don't have to draft the legislation," he said. "I hope that we get some substantial and unexpected movement than can produce a settlement. But if it doesn't come out that way, I'm not prepared to see the present situation continue."

The teachers, without a contract since last June, began job action in September by refusing to meet administrators, supervise playgrounds or prepare report cards.

Abbott said he knows that some teachers have kept in contact with parents by email and phone. But he also said the government is receiving regular reports from parents frustrated by their inability to get information on how their children are doing in school.

"I think anyone who argues that phase one [of the strike] has not been a challenge, and indeed damaging to the prospects of some kids, is wrong," he said. "I think that is manifestly the case."

The B.C. Teachers' Federation, which represents 41,000 teachers across the province, disputes his assessment. President Susan Lambert said the "moderate" and "responsible" job action was designed to draw attention to key issues by putting pressure on administrators.

"We've done it in a way that, as far as possible, is removed from the classroom," she said.

She said a responsible government would go to the bargaining table willing to negotiate. Instead, she said, Abbott has held the "legislative hammer" over negotiations for a year, while government negotiators refused to make any concessions. "He mused about legislation back in March of 2011," she said. "That's kind of a bullying tactic."

Lambert said the union will co-operate with Hughes in preparing his report on negotiations. But she said the union worries that his report is a foregone conclusion and that the government has already made up its mind to legislate an end to the strike.

Hughes will meet the union and the government's negotiating arm, the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, over the next two weeks. He is expected to report back to Labour Minister Margaret MacDiarmid by Feb. 23.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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